EACH year, on the Fifth of November, the town of Lewes is filled not with the sound and smell of traffic, but the beat of drum, the blast of trumpet and the smell of powder and burning torches. The streets are thronged with people in festive mood who have gathered expectantly to see a spectacle unsurpassed in the rest of England. As the Bonfire Societies parade through the streets, their members bedecked in magnificent costumes, the spectators stand entranced by the splendour and pageantry of the occasion. There will also be those who wonder why.
All people have their special days when events from the past are celebrated in some traditional way. We of the Cliffe Bonfire Society hold our celebrations of remembrance in light hearted vein, but do not allow this to distract us from the fundamental reasons for our celebrations. By our activities on the 'Fifth', we desire to remind people of the religious antagonisms of a bygone age and in particular, to spotlight specific events which were the outcome.
By our bonfires and our seventeen blazing crosses we recall to mind the fires that burnt to death the Protestant Martyrs outside the Star Inn, Lewes, during the Marian Persecutions of the 16th century, fires that burned into people's hearts a hatred of tyranny which has ensured for us our freedom of thought and conscience. We are reminded too of the Elizabethan beacon fires of just over four hundred years ago
For swift to east and swift to west
the ghastly war-flame spread,
High on St Michael's Mount it shone;
it shone on Beachy Head.
Far on the deep the Spaniard saw,
along each southern shire,
Cape beyond Cape in endless range,
those twinkling points of fire.
calling England to withstand the Spanish Armada bearing officers and instruments of the'Holy Inquisition'.
And by 'The Fifth' we remember the discovery on 5th November 1605 of the Jesuit-inspired Gunpowder Plot to destroy England's Protestant King and Parliament. No less important, the landing at Brixham on 5th November 1688 of William, Prince of Orange, who gave England freedom of worship for Anglican and Non-Conformists alike and established the roots of that British tradition of tolerance and understanding which sets an example to all nations.
Ours is not a spirit of intolerance (except of tyranny), but rather of gratitude and remembrance. Of gratitude to those brave men and women who gave their lives in the fight for our freedom. Of remembrance of that alien political system which has ever been England's bitterest foe and of which the Book of Common Prayer says:
'The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England'
Many, doubtless, forget the lessons of the past, but in the Cliffe Bonfire Society our desire in our annual commemorations is to recall the struggles, triumphs and deliverances of times gone by - lest we too forget.
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BONFIRES OF THE PAST
Tableau, Cliffe, 1980
1606 The first anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. Bonfires in
all parts of the country, including one on Cliffe Hill, not far from where the
Martyrs Memorial now stands.
1679 Following Titus Oates' 'exposure' of a Popish plot to kill the King, anti-
catholic processions similar to those held in London were seen in Lewes
on November 5th. Carrying banners proclaiming the corruptions of the
Roman Church, people attired in clerical regalia paraded an effigy of the
Pope through the streets, finally late at night, to commit it to the flames.
1723 An old churchwarden's account book has an entry as follows: 'Nov. ye 5th.
Item: Pd. ye ringers being ye day of Deliverance from ye powder plott . .
1795 The 'Sussex Weekly Advertiser' of November 9th, reported at fire at the
Star Inn, caused, it stated, 'by the indifference of some thoughtless
persons who had amused themselves by letting serpents and crackers in
the great parlour of the Inn.'
1813 The Diary of the late John Holman (High Constable of Lewes) gives us our
first glimpse of things to come in the following entry: 'Nov. 5th
Gunpowder plot observed by the Boys, a fire on Gallows Bank, passed off
without any particular Accident.'
1829 The dragging of lighted tar barrels through the streets was introduced.
1838 Great rioting; several arrests were made and fines up to E15 imposed. A
local magistrate, the late Mr. Whitfield, JP, had a sharp encounter with the
'Boys" on Cliffe Bridge (origin of the custom of throwing a blazing tar-
barrel into the river).
1841 Special constables were sworn in for another attempt to stop the
celebrations. The Bonfire Boys armed themselves, and Superintendent
Flanigan and some of his men were roughly treated. At the following
Assizes, more than twenty of the rioters were sent to prison for terms of up
to two months.
1842 Bands were introduced in the Processions.
1843 The Sussex Express stated that 'Since O'Connell and the Irish priesthood
had denounced their fellow-subjects, the English as Saxon tyrants, the
desire for celebrating the fifth of November in this town was increased
among many of its respectable inhabitants.
1847 One hundred and seventy 'of the principal tradesmen and other
respectable inhabitants' were summoned to be sworn in as special
constables. On their way to a meeting on the night of November 4th, they
were attacked by Bonfire Boys in the High Street. Tar-barrels were lighted
and several incidents occurred. The police fastened a chain across the road
near Keere Street and ambushed some of the 'Boys', who were arrested.
The next day, 100 of the 'A! Division of the Metropolitan Constabulary
arrived, and great was the excitement in Lewes that evening. It was an
incident involving the mail-gig from Brighton which brought things to a
head. Lord Chichester read the Riot Act from the steps of the County Hall
and gave the crowd five minutes in which to depart. In the free fight that
ensued, many of the Metropolitan Police were injured, but the streets were
1848 A committee of local tradesmen was formed, and arrangements were
made to carry out the celebrations on the Wallands Fields.
1850 Pope Pius IX re-established the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. This
led the townspeople to allow the Bonfire Boys back in the streets, and two
great bonfires were lighted, one in front of the County Hall and one in front
of Cliffe Church.
1853 Bonfire Boys organise themselves into processions. The first societies thus formed were those of the'Cliffe'and'Town'.
1856 A feature of the demonstrations introduced by the Cliffe was the 'Lord Bishop'who 'officiated'. He wore full clerical uniform and gave a 'sermon' before the effigies were burnt.
1858 The Society was unfortunate when one of its members made off with the money box. He was commemorated the following year by being burnt in effigy along with the Pope.
1874 An epidemic of typhoid in Lewes. The postponed celebration was carried out on the night of December 31st, after a fall of snow which greatly added to the effect.
1904 A large fire in the town a month before the fifth showed the inhabitants the danger of fire, and consequently the famous Lewes Rouser firework was prohibited.
1906 Fires in the Streets and the dragging of lighted tar barrels through the streets suppressed. 130 police were on duty in the town and many people were arrested including four leading Bonfire Boys. In the ensuing court case they were acquitted of instigating the forming of a bonfire in Commercial Square.
1914-18 Activities suspended during World War 1.
1919 The Cliffe Society resumes the Demonstrations, the only Society in the
town to do so.
1931 Cliffe resign from the Bonfire Council as the only Society maintaining the
tradition of burning a papal effigy.
1939-1945 Activities suspended during World War 11.
Cliffe featured in American 'Time' magazine. Press and radio coverage increasing.
1960 Celebrations suspended owing to severe flooding in the town.
1964 The Society took an active part in the town celebrations to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes.
1972 Cliffe rejoins the Bonfire Council.
1973 Cliffe goes into Europe. The Society took part in celebrations in the twin town of Blois, France.
1974 The Bonfire Societies stage a Pageant of Bonfire History as part of the Festival of Lewes.
1977 The Bonfire Societies organise processions and fireworks to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee.
1978 Lewes Bonfire televised - some television coverage in most subsequent years.
1980 The Society leases some land and builds its own workshops and storage facilities.
Adverse publicity concerning the burning of the Effigy of Pope Paul V forces Ministry of Defence to ban Military Bands from Cliffe processions.
1981 The Bonfire Societies stage a firework display for the Lewes Mayoral centenary.
1983 The Cliffe successfully applies to the Registry of Friendly Societies to become CLIFFE BONFIRE SOCIETY LIMITED.
1988 The Lewes Societies stage a firework display on the battlements of Lewes Castle to celebrate anniversary of Spanish Armada.
After nearly 40 years at their Mill Road Firesite, the Society were forced to find a new site at Brooks Road, Lewes.
1989 Mr Bob Allen, a Life Member since 1969, and Secretary of the Society for 25 years, passed away in December. The Society purchased a seat in his memory for the new shopping precinct in Cliffe High Street.
1990 The Cliffe charges admission to the Firesite for the first time.
Cliffe Bonfire Efigies
1975 Arab Nationalists and buyers-up.
1976 Idi Amin
1977 Scots. Nationalists
1978 Sovunion / China
1979 Local Tunnellers ( A year late in bulding a by-pass! )
1984 Scargill / McGregor doubleheaded monster
1985 Mitterand ( Rainbow Warrior )
1986 S. Africa /P.W.Botha
1988 Estate Agent / Nigel Lawson
1989 Football Lager Lout
1991 W. Waldegrave
1992 "Statue of Liberty"
1993 J. Major
1994 Motorway builders
1995 Radavan Karadjic
1996 Mad Cows
1997 Patten the way back (Hong Kong)
1998 Captain Viagra ( Clinton )
1999 New Labour - New Potato ( GM foods, etc.)
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Click to go to the 1997 Program
Promotional address of Cliffe Bonfire Society:
Archbishop and Clergy, 1988,Cliffe
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